It’s the season to drink bubbly, and Champagne has quite the reputation. But what distinguishes Champagne from its other fizzy counterparts? Here’s a quick Champagne guide:
LOCATION: Champagne, France
THE GRAPES: Champagne is usually a blend of different grapes. The main three used are:
Sometimes you can get Champagnes made from 100% Chardonnay which are known as Blanc de Blancs, or solely from the two black grape varieties labelled as Blanc de Noirs.
HOW IS IT MADE?
Producing Champagne is very labour intensive which is one of the things which makes it unique (and pricey!).
Whichever sparkling wine you’re making through, the process starts out the same way; you need to take advantage of the fermentation process.
STEP 1: To make standard wine you need a fermentation to take place (check out this post for explanation):
Yeast + Sugar -> Alcohol + Carbon Dioxide
STEP 2: To make sparkling wine this reaction has to happen again, and in the case of Champagne it happens in a specially reinforced bottle. The bottle is sealed so the carbon dioxide can’t escape and therefore it dissolves into the wine, making it fizzy.
After this second fermentation you are left with what makes champagne extra special: dead yeast cells.
I know, it doesn’t sound too appealing but once the wine has spent 15 months (a minimum required by law in Champagne) on these dead yeast cells it picks up lots of flavour characteristics which give Champagnes their trademark flavour profile. This process is called yeast autolysis, and the flavours you can expect are things like yeast, bread, brioche, biscuit, toast etc.
You then get rid of the dead yeast cells and add in as much (or as little) sugar as you wish – et voilà! You’ve made Champagne.
This process is known as the traditional method, or also known as methode Champenoise.
Sparkling wines will often have slightly different labelling terms too. Here’s some Champagne lingo that you might come across:
VINTAGE vs NON VINTAGE (NV)
The definition of a vintage wine is the year of harvest, so most wine produced will have a vintage. However, because of the marginal climate in the Champagne region they struggle to ripen their grapes every year. As a result they often have to blend wine from different years together in order to still make a good quality wine. This is known as non-vintage Champagne and is the most common style.
This blending process used for non-vintage Champagne allows each house to produce a consistent wine which tastes practically the same year on year. Each Champagne house will have their own ‘house’ style, which is basically their own flavour stamp that makes their Champagnes taste different from the others available.
The house style at Bollinger for example is very rich and yeasty, compared with that at Lanson which is known for being very crisp and light. If you like drinking Champagne regularly, then chances are you will have a particular favourite.
Vintage Champagnes are made from grapes from a particular year. They are only made in years when the weather was exceptionally good, meaning the grapes are riper and better quality which translates through into the wine. They are also aged for longer on the yeast (min 3 years) which gives them an even more distinctive yeasty flavour.
Which is better? Well, technically vintage Champagne is better quality, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to enjoy the taste any more than a non-vintage.
This is the most common level of sweetness in Champagne, and it all it means is that your fizz is dry.
These are the crème de la creme of Champagne. Each Champagne house will have a Prestige Cuvee which is essentially the best wine that they produce. Cristal, for example is the prestige cuvee of Louis Roederer, Dom Perignon the prestige cuvee for Moet and so on.
I’ll leave you with a little bit of insider knowledge too… On your Champagne label there are usually some tiny initials to one side. If this code begins with RM then you’re onto a winner as this means you have a grower Champagne on your hands. These are becoming more common and popular in the UK, mainly because they are really great value for money. Next time you’re buying some fizz look out for these and try something you’ve never heard of before… You’re likely to be in for a treat.
If you need any tips for what fizz to drink this Christmas, see my Festive Fizz post, or get in touch!